It’s hard to believe that M was made in 1931. If we allow for the fact that it’s in black and white, it is more engaging to the eye, more incisive in its irony, more firm in its grasp of social complications than most of the films that come along today.
Take the very first shot. Children are playing in the courtyard of a Berlin tenement. We see them from high above; thus we hover over them. They sing, as children often do in innocent games, of chopping and killing. Our vantage point and their song prepare us for the tone of the whole film.
Fritz Lang had been directing in Berlin since 1919, and by 1931 he had made more than a dozen films. M was his first sound film, but no one could know that from the film itself. His use of that new instrument, the soundtrack, leaps at once past mere verisimilitude to evocation. Note the shot of the empty loft while we hear a mother call her missing child. Note—an acutely innovative device possible only with sound—that we hear the central character before we see him.
The screenplay, by Thea von Harbou, then Lang’s wife, deals with a serial killer of children terrorizing Berlin. But this is not a mystery story: we know virtually from the beginning who the criminal is. We see him writing to the press, begging to be caught. The suspense is in the effect of this murderer and his murders on the structure of a large city—how two kinds of order are galvanized by the murderer’s disorder.
The first order is the usual legal apparatus, government and police. All officialdom is pursuing the killer. But its very efforts evoke another group that wants the killer caught: the criminals, the nonviolent criminals. Police are so thick in the streets, police raids are so frequent, that the pickpockets and safecrackers are having a hard time making a living. The murderer must be caught so that the police will quiet down and the “good” criminals can practice their professions. And to help them, to act as their spies and lookouts, the good criminals engage the guild of beggars, who throng the streets.
Lang plays these two strata of the city, upper and lower, against each other in almost musical counterpoint, and he drily makes the most of their similarities. But though it’s the underworld that catches the killer, the police would have soon caught him anyway. Lang isn’t interested in a facile lampooning of the police as numbskulls; his satirical eye focuses on the kinship between the two strata.
The relation of M to Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera—the analogous site in the underworld, the guild of beggars—has been much discussed. No doubt Lang and Harbou knew the Brecht work, but they had a very different view of the subject. Still, another link with Brecht exists through Peter Lorre, who plays the murderer. Lorre (who later became a big American star) had risen to prominence in Berlin through Brecht’s theater work, and at the very same time that M was being shot, he was preparing for a Brecht play. It seems quite possible that Brecht, an exceptional director of actors, contributed privately to Lorre’s basic concept of the murderer as a scurrying, furry little animal, and to the wretch’s outburst when he is brought before the court of criminals.
The letter M with which he is tagged—for Mörder, German for “murderer”—guarantees that, under the wit and satire, a dark current flows. When the film first appeared in the United States in 1933, critic William Troy wrote: “The modern psychopath, through Peter Lorre’s acting, attains to the dignity of the tragic hero: the fates are now within the protagonist, instead of assailing him from without.” And the ancient Greek sense of fate is heightened by the blind balloon seller. Like Tiresias in Oedipus Rex, the blind man is the one who sees further than others, who fixes the guilt of the offender.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for the New Republic.